David Hockney, Portrait of Cavafy in Alexandria from Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from C. P. Cavafy, 1966–67, etching © David Hockney.

Cavafy’s World: Hidden Things, exhibited at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, presents a series of etchings by David Hockney inspired by the work of Cavafy. Hockney’s lyrical and spare images depict fleeting homosexual encounters and the erotics of memory — topics that often haunted the Greek poet. The etchings, which are on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, were initially created for a limited-edition book entitled Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from C. P. Cavafy.

On the surface, the artist and the poet seem an unlikely pair. A flamboyant and colorful personality, Hockney is known for his whimsical and often bold images. Cavafy, who died four years before Hockney was born, is remembered as a quiet, erudite, and introspective poet, whose works are not particularly painterly. Moreover, Cavafy was a homosexual who lived during a time when he was forced to hide his behavior, while Hockney lives openly as a gay artist.

Despite these differences, Hockney was clearly moved by the poet’s life and work. Much of Cavafy’s adult life was spent in Alexandria, Egypt, where he fled the decency, order, and claustrophobia of the city’s “good quarter” to enjoy the squalor and excitement of homosexual encounters in the shops and bars of its “bad quarter.” His poems often underscore the sensual, almost intoxicating power of those memories. The love affairs are, however, usually tainted with tragedy, depicted as fleeting, and eclipsed by a sense that they are “condemned” by society. For Cavafy, memory became the antidote for those fading pleasures, no matter how transient.

David Hockney’s homage to Cavafy in the form of a book stands as one of the most unusual “translations” of these emotive poems. In the early 1960s, when Hockney first discovered Cavafy’s poems, he was so taken by them that he stole the only copy of the then out-of-print translations from his local library and read the poems repeatedly. According to Hockney, he still owns the book and remembers with a note of irony that it was considered “too wicked” to remain on the library shelf for the casual peruser. One had to ask specially for it from the librarian.

The sparing lines employed by Hockney in this series of etchings echo the economy of Cavafy’s poetic style, and like the figures in Cavafy’s verse, Hockney’s men are drawn with simplicity and tenderness, subtly but never explicitly erotic.

Manuscript in Cavafy’s hand of the poem “Krymmena” (“Hidden Things”). S.N.H.
Hidden Things

From all I did and all I said,
let them not seek to find who I was.
It stood an obstacle in my way this, altering
my actions and my way of life.
This stood an obstacle in my way, stopping me
all the times I wanted to speak out.
My most unnoticed actions,
discreet writings, those most disguised—
from these alone they’ll understand me.
But maybe it’s not worth so much care,
all this effort just to know what and who I am.
A long time from now—in a more perfect world—
some other made like me will appear
and, to be sure, he will act freely.

Trans. John Chioles